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Understanding Bismillah

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

After trying to explain what Allahu Akbar means, we found another common phrase that needs to be better understood – “Bismillah.” We, Muslims, use “Bismillah” almost all the time! Before eating, drinking, begining any work, sitting, standing, etc. The list goes on. But how many of us really mean what we say? How many of us really understand what it means?

I encourage almost everyone I meet, to learn Arabic. Learning Arabic has been such an overwhelming experience for me, and I wish for every Muslim to experience the same. Experiencing the beauty of the Arabic language is far too powerful and subtle at the same time – it’s as though you can hear colours and see sounds! (Yes, it can’t be explained, it can only be experienced). You just cannot afford to miss out!

A little “bite” of grammar!

Today, I want to share another little grammar concept that I came across recently, called Hasab. In this context, it means: “to restrict.” Let’s look at an example: اللهَ فِي كُلِّ الأُمُورِ أحْمَدُ the meaning of which can be roughly translated to: I praise Allah in every one of my affairs. (This is an introductory statement from one of the most popular classical Arabic grammar books: Al-Ajroomiyyah written in the 13th century.)

What might look like a simple sentence in English (I praise Allah in every one of my affairs), highlights an important rule in the Arabic grammar. Here, Allah is the recipient of the praise. It is clear that He (Allah) is the one receiving the praise. But, when Allah is mentioned at the beginning of the sentence with a fatha (indicating He is the object), you’re restricting all praise only to Allah, and no one else! (What?!)

Let me explain. For example: if you said, “I went to the museum and the park and the shop and …”, you can keep adding any number of things in Arabic with a simple “and” (و alphabet). However, when you say: “Museum, I went.” that’s the end of it in Arabic. You’re saying museum is all where you went. You have restricted the action to just going to the museum alone. It might not make much sense in English, but remember, Arabic is a semitic language and follows a structure that is different from the English language.

Now, coming back to our example, I praise Allah in every one of my affairs. What it means is: I have restricted all praise to Allah alone. There can be no addition to this statement. We cannot add any partners to it. There cannot be an “and” (و alphabet) to this statement. This in it’s essence represents our faith – Tawheed! (Oneness of God)

Translation of the meaning of Bismillah

Now, Bismillah is usually translated to mean: “In (or with) the name of Allah.” [“Bi” (with/in), “Ism” (name of), “Allah”] First of all, we should know that Bismillah is a phrase and not a full sentence. (Surprise!) Secondly, we should understand that Arabic is much richer than English in conveying the meaning. So when people translate “Bi” to mean “with” or “in”, it’s a very deficient translation in this context. A better way to put it would be, “utilizing”. For example, if I said: “I wrote bi-pen,” it means: “I wrote utlizing (or using) a pen”.  Hence, when we say Bismillah, we mean to say that by utilizing the name of Allah, we begin.

But what are we beginning here? Anything and everything! Every one of our actions, we begin by utilizing the name of Allah alone. Before we do anything, we are testifying our Tawheed.

Types of Speech

This brings us to another topic. In Arabic, you can have two types of speech that are relevant to our discussion: literal and implied. For example: If I asked you: “Do you understand?”, you may respond with a “Yes”. What you responded is literal, but what you implied is: “Yes, I understand.”

Going back to our understanding of the concept of Hasab, we can see that Bismillah is the initial part of the sentence (phrase); and the action which follows is implied to be the latter part of the sentence. Every action that follows Bismillah, is restricted to begin by utilizing the name of Allah alone. (Wow!)

Understanding Bismillah

From the above discussion, we can conclude that the action that follows after saying Bismillah is what completes the sentence. In other words, every action is incomplete if you do not begin by utilizing the name of Allah. (SubhanAllah!) Now, isn’t that beautiful?

May Allah grant us tawfeeq to learn and understand this beautiful language, so we can truly appreciate the linguistic miracles of the Quran.

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